Uncovering the BIG ideas

Volume 7 Number 2 February 14 - March 13 2011

Mentor Professor Sir Gus Nossal and mentee Associate Professor Julie Willis. Photo: Dave Tacon
Mentor Professor Sir Gus Nossal and mentee Associate Professor Julie Willis. Photo: Dave Tacon

As Silvia Dropulich reports, it is family metaphor which underpins Melbourne’s unique Research Mentoring Program.

Inspired by the original Mentor in Homer’s epic The Odyssey, the University of Melbourne has developed a unique research mentor program designed to help develop the next generation of leading thinkers.

“The original Mentor was a figure in The Odyssey,” explains program organiser, Professor Leon Mann, the Director of the Research Leadership Unit at the University of Melbourne.

“Mentor was a wise and faithful adviser who guided young Telemachus (Odysseus’s son) to discover his father, his heritage and his inheritance when Odysseus sailed against Troy,” he says.

“The family metaphor underpins our concept of the Melbourne mentoring program as an intergenerational endeavour.”

Professor Sir Gustav Nossal has been involved with the program since it began in May last year. He describes it as a real world first.

The Melbourne mentoring program is different. It is about mentoring as an activity and how to deal with the key issues in which current research leaders as mentors to others need to give assistance and advice.

The Research Mentors Program is comprised of 11 two-hour sessions spread across the year, with different senior research leaders serving as moderators and presenters in each session.

The mentors cover a range of topics from ‘Being an inspiring mentor’ to ‘Sparking and developing the BIG idea’ and ‘Knowing yourself and your effect on others’.

The ‘BIG idea’ session led Professor Nossal to revisit and summarise his experiences at a time when nature’s immune defence system was being considered in a new light.

“I told the mentees what I did to find out how the immune system really worked,” says Professor Nossal.

“I also talked about my experiences as a young professor at Stanford University.”

In other sessions Professor Nossal has provided advice about knowing yourself and learning to listen. And he is passionate about generosity.

“Never ever arrogate unto yourself, achievements made by another, including your juniors,” cautions Professor Nossal.

The Melbourne Research Mentor Program has been developed and designed by a group of some of the most knowledgeable senior research leaders in the University who are also highly experienced mentors. The group includes Professors Nossal, Peter Doherty, Adrienne Clarke, Nancy Millis, Bob Williamson, Tom Healy, Jim Pittard, David Macmillan, Peter McPhee, Kwong Lee Dow, John McKenzie, Bill Sawyer, Leon Mann, and Dr Marjorie Dunlop.

The aim of the program is to provide a cohort of 20 outstanding researchers each year who hold or are moving into positions of research leadership in the University with the concepts, tools and knowledge to become effective mentors of their own staff and students, who work with them on programs and projects.

Associate Professor Julie Willis, the Associate Dean (Research) at the University’s Faculty of Architecture, Building and Planning, says all academics are now in a position where they need to play a greater role in mentoring staff and RHD students.

“The Research Mentor Program provides an opportunity to engage with some of the University’s finest researchers who have had years of mentoring experience,” says Associate Professor Willis.

“I’ve learned that appreciating the experience and wisdom of others is very important; that not all modes of leadership are the same; that not all mentoring relationships are the same; and that fostering the careers of others is about understanding their needs and skills and working alongside them to achieve their goals.”

It is the level at which the discussions are held which Associate Professor Willis finds so rewarding.

“The calibre of the mentors is extraordinary and they are generous with their time and their advice,” she says.

“To be able to engage like this over a 12-months period helps to build a sense of confidence and ease between mentors and mentees, which encourages further discussions.”

The CASS Foundation and Pratt Foundation have provided support to the University for program development and evaluation and to assist with publication of a manual on mentorship for research leaders based on knowledge and ideas stemming from the program.